Easter 1916, part II
Easter 1916, part II
The second part of a two-part series examining the Easter Rising, its historical context and significance.


The British Intelligence services had, as we have seen, infiltrated the various Irish `resistance' movements. The Volunteers, it must be assumed, had few secrets not known to Dublin Castle. And the Castle knew that a rising was planned to take place as soon as possible after the landing of Casement and his German guns. On April 21, 1916, Casement landed and was immediately arrested. Wimborne, who was to have gone to Belfast, cancelled his visit and on Sunday the 23rd (that is to say only a matter of hours before the Rising took place) demanded of Nathan that he immediately arrest `between 60 and 100' of the Irish leaders. Had this been done successfully, it seems unlikely that any Rising would have taken place at that time. However, it was probably too late for a mere police action by that date. The men of the Citizen Army and the more militant Volunteers were under arms and ready to fight. As it was, Nathan persuaded his `constitutional monarch' that there was no need for action. And Birrell was in London.


It would seem probable that Nathan's Intelligence service had briefed him as to what was happening within the high command of the Volunteers after the news of Casement's arrest, and that he knew Eoin MacNeill had decided that without the guns the Rising must be cancelled or at least postponed. What Nathan presumably did not know was that this decision finally split the Volunteers, and that the IRB was almost solidly behind Patrick Pearse and those other Irish patriots who were prepared to go ahead with the Rising even in these disadvantageous, indeed well-nigh suicidal, circumstances. All this sounds very neat when put down on paper, but of` course the reality was far more chaotic, involving a clash of personalities, orders and counter orders and very considerable bitterness. Indeed, MacNeill's decision to call off the Rising, and Pearse's to go ahead, was really the death-knell of the Volunteers and of the Nationalist Party whose armed force they were supposed to be. After the Rising, the political leadership of those hostile to British rule in Ireland passed to the Sinn Féin, while those who fought in Easter week became the nucleus of' the Irish Republican Army.

Certainly MacNeill's last-minute proclamation that the Rising be cancelled-he had boys bicycling all over the country, and even announced this supposed non-happening in the Sunday papers -- cannot possibly have been unknown to Nathan. He must have taken into account the fact that a few hot-heads were likely to ignore this order: he must also have known that the vast bulk of the Volunteers would breathe a sigh of relief and that the clergy-to whom the English have often attached an exaggerated political importance in Ireland as a result of their ubiquity and their marked difference from the Anglican clergy in England - would support MacNeill and the mass of his supporters, content with the promise of eventual, diluted Home Rule. The handful of extremists could be dealt with-though not at all as easily as the English thought-by the overwhelming forces arraigned against them. No special precautions were taken, despite Lord Wimborne's fully justified fears. Indeed, on Easter Monday, the first day of the Rising, a great many British officers were at Fairyhouse Races.

The Easter Rising was suicidal. Patrick Pearse was well aware of this. Before ever it happened he said to his mother: `The day is coming when I shall be shot, swept away, and my colleagues like me.' When his mother enquired about her other son, William, who was also an extreme nationalist, Pearse is reported to have replied:'Willie? Shot like the others. We'll all be shot.' And James Connolly is said to have remarked: `The chances against us are a thousand to one.' On the morning of the Rising, when asked by one of his men if there was any hope, he replied, cheerfully: `None whatever!'

It was hard for the staff officers and colonial administrators of Dublin Castle, accustomed to weighing possibilities so far as their own actions were concerned, to realise that a group of men, perhaps 1,250 strong (the Citizen Army took no notice of MacNeill), was prepared to fight and die in such circumstances. But they should have been wiser in their age: Langemark was recent, Verdun was going on. Seldom in history have men been so willing, indeed so eager, to throw away their lives for an ideal, almost any ideal, and the Irish ideal had long roots. The men went out and fought.

The essence of the Irish plan was to seize certain key points in the city, and hold these for as long as possible, thus disrupting British control of the capital. It was then hoped that one of three things might happen: the country might rise in sympathy; the British might realise the ultimate impossibility of controlling Ireland and pull out; and last and faintest of hopes, the Germans might somehow come to the rescue of the rebels. Since the rebels had no artillery of any sort, their strongpoints could only hold out provided that the British did not use their artillery. Connolly and the socialists hoped that the British would, for capitalist reasons, not bombard Dublin and thus destroy their own -- or largely their own -- property. This, too, was an illusion.


H-hour was 12 noon and since this was a Bank Holiday there were crowds in the streets, and these witnessed the small bodies of Volunteers and of the Citizen Army marching, armed, through the city to seize their various strongpoints. It went, on the whole, remarkably smoothly. Five major buildings or groups of buildings were seized north of the River Liffey, nine south of it, and some of the railway stations were occupied. Headquarters were established in the massive General Post Office in Sackville Street (now O'Connell Street) from which Irish flags were flown and where Patrick Pearse announced the creation of a provisional government of the new Irish Republic. With him in the Post Office were Connolly as military commander, Joseph Plunkett (a very sick man), The O'Rahilly, Tom Clark, Sean MacDermott and other leaders. There, too, was a young man named Michael Collins. The rebels immediately set about preparing the Post Office against the attack which they expected almost at once. The four other principal strongpoints seized were the South Dublin Union, a congeries of poor-houses and the like (commanded by Eamonn Ceannt); the Four Courts, the headquarters of the legal profession, where heavy law books were used as sandbags (Eamonn Daly); St Stephen's Green, where trenches were dug and barricades of motorcars erected (Michael Mallin and Countess Markiewicz), and Boland's Flour Mill, which covered the approach roads from Kingstown, now Dun Laoghaire, where any reinforcements from England would almost certainly disembark (Eamon de Valera).

An attempt to seize Dublin Castle failed. An attempt to capture a large quantity of arms and ammunition from the arsenal in Phoenix Park known as the Magazine Fort, was not very successful and only a few rifles were seized. On the other hand, the rebels successfully cut telephone lines, and the Castle was for a time almost isolated. A further success was that a troop of Lancers which attempted to charge down Sackville Street was repulsed with casualties.


The British had been taken by surprise and were now almost completely in the dark. The Castle immediately ordered troops up from the Curragh and other camps outside Dublin and appealed to London for reinforcements. There, Lord French was Commander-in-Chief. He was an Irishman and an ardent Unionist. He immediately ordered that no less than four divisions be alerted for transfer to Ireland. British policy was in fact thrown into reverse. Appeasement of the Irish was out; the rebels were to be crushed, rapidly and massively. But if the British in Dublin were in the dark, so were the rebels. They had no wireless links either between the strongpoints they had seized or with the outside world. Communication by runner became difficult and eventually impossible when the fighting reached its peak.

From a military point of view, Tuesday was comparatively calm. The British were closing in cautiously. Their strategy was to throw a cordon around that area of Dublin where the rebels' strongpoints were, then cut that area in two, and finally mop up. They moved artillery and troops into Trinity College, a natural fortress which the rebels had failed to seize, though they had planned to do so. The reason was the small number of fighting men available. Looting by the crowds began. Martial law was declared. British reinforcements arrived at Kingstown. A mad British officer, a Captain Bowen-Colthurst, had three harmless journalists shot `while trying to escape'-a phrase to become hideously familiar, and not only in Ireland. The `atrocities' had begun.

By Wednesday morning the rebels were outnumbered 20 to one. The British now began to attack in earnest. Their first major action was to destroy Liberty Hall, the headquarters of the Labour Party and of the trade unions, by shellfire from the gunboat Helga. As it happened, the rebels had anticipated this, and the building was empty. The British gunfire was inaccurate and many other buildings were hit and many civilians killed. The army also was using artillery: a 9 -pounder gun was fired against a single sniper. Dublin began to burn, and the Dubliners to starve, for there was no food coming into the city. This was no longer a police action but full-scale war in which no attempt was made to spare the civilians. Meanwhile, British reinforcements marching in from Kingstown were ambushed by de Valera's men and suffered heavy casualties, but by dint of numbers forced their way through. St Stephen's Green had been cleared of rebels, who retreated into the Royal College of Surgeons, and established a strongpoint there.


On Thursday the new British commander in-chief arrived. Since Ireland was under martial law, he held full powers there. This was General Sir John Maxwell, a soldier of some distinction who had returned the month before from Egypt, where he had been Commander-in-Chief of the Angle-Egyptian armies. Although he numbered the Countess Markiewicz among his relations, he had no knowledge of the current political mood in Ireland, and, indeed, as events were to prove, did more to undermine British rule in Ireland than all the rebels put together. He had been ordered by the British Prime Minister, Asquith, to put down the rebellion with all possible speed. And this he did regardless of political consequences.

The reinforcements from England were now in action. These were largely untrained men, and when they discovered that many of the men of the Irish Republican Army-as the rebels now and henceforth styled themselves-were not in uniform (how could they be?) they began shooting male civilians on sight.

On that day (Thursday) attacks were made on Boland's Mill, the men in the South Dublin Union were forced to give ground, and there was shelling of' the General Post Office, which began to burn from the top down. Connolly was wounded twice. The first wound he hid from his men the second was more serious, for one foot was shattered and he was in great pain. With the aid of morphia he carried on, directing the battle as best he could. The Dublin fires were now great conflagrations. With the streets full of smallarms fire and the water supplies often cut, these could not be dealt with. Still, no major rebel strongpoint surrendered.

On Friday, Connolly ordered the women who had fought so bravely to leave the General Post Office building, which was now cut off and burning. Later that day he and Pearse and the remaining rebels escaped from a building that was by now almost red-hot and about to collapse. They found temporary refuge nearby, while the British continued to shell the empty building. All knew that the end was near. A last battle was fought for King's Street, near the Four Courts. It took some 5,000 British soldiers, equipped with armoured cars and artillery, 28 hours to advance about 150 yards against some 200 rebels. It was then that the troops of the South Staffordshire Regiment bayoneted and shot civilians hiding in cellars. And now all was over. On Saturday morning Pearse and Connolly surrendered unconditionally.

Like so much else about the Easter Rising, casualties are hard to estimate. It would seem that those of the British were about 500; those of the Irish, including civilians, about twice that figure. Material damage was estimated at about 2,500,000 Pounds. Large parts of Dublin lay in ruins.

When, on Sunday, the arrested rebels were marched across Dublin from one prison compound to another, they were at times jeered at and booed by the crowds, and particularly in the slum areas. The mass of public opinion had been against the rebels before the Rising and remained so until the reprisals began.

On the direct orders of the cabinet in London, punishment was swift, secret and brutal. The leaders were tried by court martial and shot: only when they were dead were their sentences announced. Among those thus killed were Willie Pearse, who was no leader and who, it was generally believed in Ireland, was killed because he had followed his famous brother, the invalid Plunkett, and, most disgusting of all to Irish minds, Connolly, who was dying and who had to be propped up in bed for the court martial in his hospital room. He was shot in a chair, since he could not stand. A wave of disgust crossed all Ireland. That wave did not subside when Asquith defended these measures in the Commons. Nor did it subside when he realised that a mistake had been made, and sacked Maxwell.

When London at last understood that its methods were uniting all Ireland against Britain, there was yet another change of British policy. Many of the 3,000-odd men arrested after the Rising were released from British gaols. They returned to Ireland and began immediately to reorganise a new and more powerful IRA, now with the backing of the people. There was a gesture of appeasement by Lloyd George, the new Prime Minister, who called an Irish Convention intended to solve `the Irish problem'. Since the Sinn Féin boy boycotted the Convention, it was a complete failure. Again British policy was thrown into reverse, and the leaders of the new independence movement were arrested in the spring of 1918. Michael Collins, how ever, escaped arrest, though there was a price on his head, dead or alive, which eventually reached the sum of ~i10,000. He was to be the great guerrilla leader in the next round of the struggle. The Irish leaders, with much backing from the United States, both emotional and financial, set about creating a viable alternative government which could and did take over when the British should have at last seen that they could not win. The Sinn Féin triumphed, and won most of the Irish seats in the 1918 election. The elected members, however, formed their own `parliament', Dail Eireann, rather than sit in Westminster. Collins drew up a strategy of resistance, first passive, then obstructive and finally active, which has since been pursued elsewhere against British imperialism, and indeed against the imperialism of other nations. And in January of 1919 the first shots of the new rebellion were fired in County Tipperary.

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